How foundations can leverage investment portfolios to further their cause

Foundations are increasingly searching to leverage their investment portfolios to support their respective missions. Traditionally, a foundation’s mission has been solely supported by its grant-making activities, which at a minimum are only required by the Canada Revenue Agency to amount to 3.5 per cent of the investment portfolio annually.

Often the easiest, most common means of increasing the impact of a foundation’s investment portfolio is to transition some, or all, of the traditional investments to socially responsible investing strategies. It takes up less of internal staff’s time and requires less in-house expertise as denoted by the low relative foundation resources ranking.

Responsibility for socially responsible investing mandates can be outsourced to third-party managers, similar to traditional investment mandates. Implementation can take the form of negative or positive screening of publicly traded securities based on environmental, social and governance factors, as well as shareholder activism. However, the direct impact on a foundation’s specific mission is much weaker.

Mission-related investments and program-related investments tend to have a more direct impact on the environmental or social causes supported by a foundation. Both of these investment strategies usually take the form of private debt or equity investments in a for-profit social purpose business, not-for-profit organization or an investment in a third-party fund that makes private debt or equity investments on behalf of investors.

The difference between mission-related and program-related investments is in the expectation of financial return. Financial return should be a byproduct of a program-related investment with expected below-market returns or losses. Because of this, opportunity costs associated with these investments can count towards a foundation’s CRA-mandated minimum spending requirement, according to the agency’s Community Economic Development Activities and Charitable Registration site.

The trend among foundations towards mission-related and program-related investments is clear. Some foundations have explicitly incorporated a target allocation to impact investments in the investment policies they are now working towards. An important report in 2010 by the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance recommended that Canadian foundations invest at least 10 per cent of their portfolio in mission-related investments by 2020. However, accomplishing capital deployment targets to impact investments can be challenging. There are two broad difficulties: identifying investment opportunities and proper governance.

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